Mindfulness Matters

buddha_studio_1.jpgMontaigne said he preferred the “company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.” This bit of wisdom applies to the path of Buddhist meditation too. The smarter we are the more we may place obstacles in our spiritual path. 

The mind wants to grasp the pratice intellectually, to understand it, and control it. Buddhism appeals to many because of its rich intellectual tradition and its cognitive psychology. However, once we are on the cushion, intellect is something to overcome. It can be a useful tool for framing understanding, but it is not how we practice.

Mindfulness is a practice of awareness and this engages different parts of the brain than discursive reasoning. If we intellectualize awareness we have put something in the way of awareness. 

At the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts (a place with a lot of intellect), Larry Rosenberg cautioned, “Even a bubblehead could do this practice.” He was admonishing us not to think too much about the practice. The practice is the doing of being, not the thinking of being. William James, also speaking from Cambridge but 100 years ago, said that our intellectual life is comprised almost wholly by substituting a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which our experience originally lives. He got it right.

Intellect can be a hard thing to let go of. It can be subtle, disguising itself in spiritual concepts –even ones explicit to mindfulness. So much of our identity is bound up in how we think; and we are loathe to give up our precious attachment to this aspect of identity. The more we practice, the more sneaky these attachments can become. Everyone on the path is at risk for identifying with being a meditator. This is not the point. Meditation is the vehicle and also the natural expression of our being.

Beware of being a “good” meditator or having a “successful” meditation. What do these adjectives really mean? If we can be a good meditator, we can be a bad meditator. I guess a bad meditator is one who has a lot of “unsuccessful” meditation sessions. Again, what does this really mean? Meditation is meditation. Our job is to pay attention to what is happening now without an agenda. Whatever happens is the landscape of now and our job is to be with it — not judge it and evaluate it. 

Some meditation sessions will feel great — relaxing, subtle pulsations of joy, bliss. Others will be dense, dull, and distracted. Our minds tend to think the former is “better” than the latter. Not so, I would contend. Sitting is sitting. There is no way to do it wrong. The only way we can get to wrong is from the vantage point of agendas — expectations on outcome. Mindfulness is the process of being. 

Enjoy that process!


My friend and fellow author, Laurel Saville, just wrote an interesting piece on solitude for Single Minded Women entitled Stay, Fetch, Lick: Love Me, Love My Dog. Literally
Her musings on gender-based perceptions of solitude got me thinking about one of my favorite quotes from Rilke that was the basis for my metaphor, The Guardianship of Solitude, in my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating
a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but
rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his
solitude and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness
between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to
exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or
both of his fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is
accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue
to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in
loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the
other whole and against a wide sky!

Laurel is a freelance writer and author of the powerful memoir, Postmortem about her mother, Anne Ford.

some lives cannot be?understood until after death.”

So it was with Anne Ford. A successful, charming beauty
queen, model, and fashion designer during the 1950s, this glamour girl about
town was poisoned by internal demons and the permissive Southern California
culture of the 1960s and 70s. She ended her life as an alcoholic street person,
stabbed and strangled in a burned-out building in West Hollywood. Years later,
her daughter, the writer Laurel Saville, began the long process of unraveling
the twin trajectories of this unusual life.

Postmortem takes the reader on an emotionally charged
journey that ranges from Saville’s eccentric West Hollywood childhood, to a
top-secret, Depression-era airplane design. Whether describing the artists of
the seminal Sunset Strip gallery where Andy Warhol got his start or the hippie
parties at the legendary Barney’s Beanery, Saville’s distinctive prose lends
insight into the events and emotions that surrounded the life and death of
stunning Anne Ford. This candid exploration of one woman’s life and death ends
up exposing unexpected truths about both mother and daughter and unscrambling
the many webs that entangled Ford’s exceptional life.


It’s Stress Reduction Sunday. Read my weekly post in the Connecticut Watchdog, This week’s entry Mindfulness and Yoga: A Potent Combination for Combatting Stress

Today there are 20 million practitioners of yoga in the United States today. My hometown of Burlington, Vermont sports a dizzying and wonderful array of yoga studios, and your town probably does as well. If not standalone studios then your local gym or YMCA will be offering classes. You can practice yoga that is gentle and contemplative or as athletic as any workout you’ve ever had, perhaps in a studio that is 100 degrees.

Long before the “Yoga Industrial Complex” evolved to include the vast array of teaching studios, conferences, books, magazines, clothing, and celebrity followers, I was practicing yoga. I started in Boston in 1983 and took classes with Master Bo-In Lee and studied in the Siddha Yoga tradition (where I later went to India to further my studies). Yoga is a daily part of my life and how I start my day. I engage with yoga for flexibility and to connect mind with body and all of that with the present moment. Yoga is mindfulness in motion and I teach a slowed down version of mindful yoga in my workshops.

CD1_2.jpgA recent article in Science (reviewed in the New York Times) lends support to what practitioners of mindfulness already know. First, our minds wander a lot. According to the study about 47% of the time (and the percentage of wandering varied considerably by activity). Second we are happier when concentrated on what we are doing. Not surprising being engaged in sex produced the least amount of stray thinking (only 10%) and the highest level of happiness. 

Data was collected by using an iPhone app and collected a quarter million data points from over 2,000 people. The study was conducted by Harvard Researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert (author of Stumbling on Happiness). 
The highest level of mind wandering was observed in people engaged in personal grooming (65%). Again, this is not a surprise. Sex is compelling and naturally draws into mindfulness. Personal grooming is not so compelling and can be done quite automatically and thus attention is free to wander. 
And when attention wanders our happiness is diminished. We often think of happiness in terms of what we are doing, and this study highlights that how is more important than what. The authors note, “Our data suggest that the location of the body is much less important than the location of the mind, and that the former has surprisingly little influence on the latter. The heart goes where the head takes it, and neither cares much about the whereabouts of the feet.”
The article does not mention mindfulness but mindfulness is all over it. It does mention the concept of flow, a subset of mindfulness that arises when the activity we are doing provides the optimal level of challenge. However, flow depends on things being just so and only arises in exceptional circumstances. Mindfulness, however, can help us to bring flow to even the most ordinary and mind-numbingly boring activity. By doing so the activity is no longer boring. This is the gift of being present. 
While the study demonstrates happiness is more available in the present moment it doesn’t tell us how to improve our ability to stay with whatever it is that we are doing. Of course, this is precisely what mindfulness training does for our attention. It trains us to recognize when our thoughts have wandered away from the activity of the moment and to bring attention back to now. 
While we don’t need much encouragement to be mindful during sex we can take advantage of personal grooming time to practice being present, especially since this is the time when the mind most wanders and such wandering thoughts can set the tone for the rest of the day. If we can give our full attention to the experience of grooming and retrieve and return thoughts whenever they wander, grooming can become an informal mindfulness practice. 
To learn how to practice mindfulness, listen and download my guided meditation CDs from the Exquisite Mind. (The first 3 CDs are currently available).